Jaden Urban
Special to Indian Country Today

The University of Idaho women’s basketball team arrived at the airport to the smell of jet fuel enveloping the air. Soon the Idaho Vandals were packed onto the crowded plane, headed for a non-conference game 2,000 miles away in the southern U.S.

It was the late 1990s, so there were no electronics present or Netflix to binge on. No Beats or AirPods to help the players drown their nerves in music. There was nothing except slight chatter, the flight attendant going over safety precautions, and the seat belt light dinging on.

Natalie Weeks, then a redshirt sophomore, sat on the flight awaiting takeoff. She was the only Indigenous player on the plane and one of only a few Native women playing Division 1 basketball at the time.

She had prepared for the game like she would any other. Studying the playbook. Watching film of the opposing team. Routine stuff.

After the long flight, the women finally stood up, stretched their arms and legs, and waited patiently to exit the plane and get to their hotel.

“It was just a standard typical match-up, at a tournament, at an early season tournament,” Weeks, now Natalie Weeks-O’Neal, a married mother of three, recalled.

The first sign of the trouble ahead came later that day from Angie Williams, then-assistant coach for the Vandals, who approached Weeks with a look of concern. Weeks thought she might want to talk about the game strategy or other plans.

Instead, Williams wanted to warn Weeks about the potential danger she could face the following night in a match-up that ultimately could change the direction of her life.

Natalie Weeks-O'Neal still remembers the abuse she endured from fans while playing Division 1 basketball. She is now a specialist in sports medicine. (Photo courtesy of Natalie Weeks-O'Neal)

Carrying on a family legacy

Weeks, a citizen of the Fort Peck Assiniboine tribe, grew up in Wolf Point, Montana, on the Assiniboine reservation.

Assiniboine was the name Europeans gave the tribal members when they crossed into northeastern Montana. The tribal members refer to themselves as the Nakoda, as they are one of the Sioux bands.

Wolf Point is home to just a few thousand people and only has two stoplights. Much of Weeks’ family still lives there, and she holds the place dear to her heart.

During high school, however, she and her family moved off the reservation across the border to Washington state. Her mother was a nurse for the Indian Health Service, and she transferred to the Nez Perce reservation in Pullman, Washington. Pullman was much bigger than their hometown, with a population of about 30,000 people. She finished out the rest of her high school basketball career there.

“I loved basketball,” Weeks-O’Neal said recently. “My dad was a former basketball player. Native people just love basketball. It’s something, I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. There’s a whole history into that.”

Basketball was a big part of her life. Not only was she passionate about the sport, but her father was a Montana basketball legend. Willie Weeks played for Wolf Point High School and then for Montana State University, playing against the likes of Pete Maravich and James Edwards. He died in 2006, one year before being inducted into the Montana High School Association Hall of Fame.

“He was an All-American for Montana State University,” Weeks-O’Neal said. “He had the opportunity to play in the ABA. He was a really legit ball player. Pretty awesome guy all around. He was a pretty big influence on me… He’s still listed as one of the tops, for Montana, in history. He was in Sports Illustrated way back in the day for an article on basketball.”

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As Weeks finished high school, recruitment time came up. She received a large amount of interest from several schools, both athletically and academically. Her SAT scores were so high that she received letters from multiple Ivy League schools. But that wasn’t her passion. She received a few athletic scholarships for her performance on the basketball court and ultimately decided to go to the University of Idaho, where she could further her basketball career about 20 miles from her home.

Calm before the storm

Weeks felt the pressure of being one of the few Native women to play Division 1 basketball.

She knew she was representing not only herself and her family but also a whole community of people. Local high school kids from the reservation would come to watch her play. The girls’ teams would come to watch her games and then run up to her afterward to ask her questions.

The Native women saw themselves in her, they looked up to her as a role model. Weeks’ family and tribe were also proud of her and held her on the highest of mountaintops, though most of her family from the reservation in Montana couldn’t watch her play.

The pressure came from deep within. She knew that whatever she did on the court – success or failure – her actions would be used to represent all Native people.

“It put a lot of pressure on me knowing I was one of only a few -- to do well, to do a good job, to not mess up because those opportunities are few and far between,” Weeks-O’Neal said. “And, so, I felt like that it was upon me to do really well for those coming in behind me… A lot of it was my own self-drive, pushing myself because everyone was proud. No matter what I did, I was supported, just that extra pressure when you’re performing. When you are one of the only ones, if you fail, that sets up, unfortunately, a stereotype.”

Williams, as her coach, was an important part of her life and helped her throughout her basketball career.

“My assistant coach (Williams) who recruited me was just a really perceptive human being and, so, to this day, is someone I consider to be like a guide and mentor that I’ll want to go to if I have things I want to pick off her brain,” Weeks-O’Neal said.

Williams is no longer involved with coaching today as she enters a battle fighting a recent breast cancer diagnosis.

But on that day in the 1990s, Williams asked Weeks if she could have a private moment with her. Once they were alone, the coach warned her that the team they were about to play had a racially based mascot, the Indians. Williams knew Weeks’ heritage and culture and wanted to let her know before the game, so she wouldn’t be surprised.

“Hey, when we go in there, this is something you might potentially see,” Williams told her. “I just want to talk to you about this, warn you, and get you mentally prepared. There are some things you’re going to have to block out.”

Native American advocate Carl Moore sits near the phrase "We Bleed These Colors" along a walkway which leads from the Bountiful High School parking lot up to the football field Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in Bountiful, Utah. While advocates have made strides in getting Native American symbols and names changed in sports, they say there's still work to do mainly at the high school level, where mascots like Braves, Indians, Warriors, Chiefs and Redskins persist. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

She warned Weeks there was potential for people in the crowd to wear feathers, red faces, and other racial derogatory caricatures. The coach knew that it could be something that would trigger her.

“She pulled me aside because she knew, because she recruited me, that I came from … a family with very close cultural ties to my heritage,” Weeks-O’Neal said. “I think in her way she was trying to protect me.”

She thanked her coach for letting her know and preparing her for what might be ahead. Growing up in Montana, she had seen incidents, but they were done with a historical context. One mascot in Montana was based on a chief from that specific land, so it was more of a prideful thing. It wasn’t just some a generic stereotype; there was a history behind it.

Weeks walked back to the hotel with her team trying to grasp what might be ahead. She felt she was strong enough mentally to block out racial attacks, to focus on the game.

“This is going to be interesting,” she thought to herself. “I haven’t been faced with this before.”

Game day

Weeks woke up on game day ready to go.

She had breakfast with the team as the coaches reiterated their game plan. By 10 a.m., they were doing a shootaround and walkthroughs.

By 4 p.m., they had begun stretching and doing warm-ups for the 6 p.m. game. Weeks felt pumped and ready for action as the team hit the hardwoods.

The Vandals lined up, as always, in order of tallest to shortest, with Weeks second in line, waiting for the announcer to call for the visiting team to take a lap around the court.

The fans, meanwhile, had taken their seats. Unlike the men’s collegiate games, the arena was not filled to capacity. The smaller crowd for women’s games are not as loud, allowing individual voices to rise above the noise.

After spending the entire day building herself up, Weeks thought she was prepared to face possible racial attacks. She didn’t realize the extent to which some were willing to go, however, as her team members began to take their lap around the court.

As soon as her soles hit the hardwood, she saw and heard everything. She thought she was good at blocking out external noise and pressure, but this time was different.

“I really wasn’t prepared … to take the level that they were going to take it to,” she said.

Her ears quickly picked up the sounds of a stereotypical chant, made by moving your hand from your lips to a couple of inches away from your face and then back again rapidly. She spotted the tomahawk chops and whiteboard signs that read things such as, “Go Back to the Reservation,” “Stomp the squaw,” and “Ladies, let’s get some scalps.”

The mascot wore feathers, war paint, and red face.

“We’re not talking, you know tens of thousands of fans,” Weeks-O’Neal said. “We’re talking hundreds of fans, at best. Things that are going to stick out are a couple of loud fans being, for lack of a better term, insensitive assholes...We’re talking about a couple dozen, very loud, thinking that it’s funny as a joke fans versus like a packed arena where you wouldn’t even notice it because there’s so many people there you would drown out the sound.”

Weeks’ teammates quickly moved in to support her. They preached to her to keep her head up and fight through the pressure.

“Just ignore them, they’re just a bunch of jerks,” the team captains told her.

One of the other coaches approached her.

“Listen, we are going to handle this,” the coach said. “This is not okay. I just want to let you know that you’re supported, and we care about you.”

The Vandals started their warm-ups, but Weeks struggled to bring her mind back to basketball. She kept taking shots, hoping each one would dampen the horrors coming from the stands. She knew if she retaliated or reacted to the hecklers it would not only reflect badly on her and the team, but on her family and the Native people she represented.

Then, just seconds away from the start of the game, with the teams lined up on opposite sides of the court, a spark lit inside her. She realized that the best way to silence a handful of disrespectful fans was to give it her all and play the best game that she could.

She was determined to show that they had no idea who she was or anything about her heritage and culture. She was fired up to get the game underway, so she could prove not only to the crowd but to herself what she was capable of.

The aftermath

The final buzzer sounded as the game clock ticked down to 00:00.

The Vandals won the game led by Weeks’ double-double performance, though the final score has slipped from her memory. She had a strong sense of relief that she and her team had gotten the better of the low-blowing fans.

Before she had time to soak in the victory, however, Weeks and the rest of the team were hurried by the coaches into the locker room, where the trainer had water bottles ready to go on the cart. The coaches feared an altercation between the team and the fans.

They changed and left the arena in about 45 minutes – half the time it usually took. The coaches made sure to get the team onto the bus before holding the post-game recap.

The following day, the team loaded back onto the plane, ecstatic over the victory. The plane was a little louder this time around. Chatter was more constant, the energy was infectious, but Weeks was still processing the events that occurred. She knew it was going to take her time to heal.

The next few months, Weeks-O’Neal had conversations with her family about what happened. She went to them for security and guidance about how to cope with the incident. Given her young age, she knew maturity was going to play a factor in how she was going to go about healing. She also visited the sports psychologist on campus to mend herself. She tried to think of the happy memories she used to have from playing ball when she was a kid, so she could retain her love for the sport.

“To my knowledge, no coach or athletic department staff took any action after the incident,” Weeks-O’Neal said. “I wasn’t interviewed by anyone. It was a different era. I persevered despite their lack of action.”

The sort of attacks she endured can have lasting repercussions.

Laurel R. Davis-Delano, a sociology professor at Springfield College in Massachusetts, published a study in the “Race Ethnicity and Education” journal in 2020 about the psychological impact that Native mascots can have on Indigenous students.

Davis-Delano found that “three studies demonstrated that Native mascots generate negative psychological effects for Native students, in particular lower self-esteem, lower community worth, less capacity to generate achievement-related possible selves, and greater levels of negative affect.”

Stacey Montooth, a citizen of the Walker River Paiute Nation who was born on the tribe’s Nevada reservation, is executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, an agency created to improve the quality of life for the state’s 27 tribal nations.

As the conduit between the tribal nations and Nevada’s Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, she helped support a bill in Nevada banning most racially based school mascots. The bill, known as AB88, prohibited schools across the state from using any mascot, team logo, song or other identifier deemed racially discriminatory, unless the tribe identified specifically approved the usage.

“I’ve been talking about changing Tribal mascots for nearly 30 years,” Montooth said. “I absolutely do not see that sports mascots, Native American sports mascots, in any way honor Indian people… It is bad for the self-identity, the self-esteem, and the development of young people… Eliminating mascots is absolutely a step in the right direction, but there is absolutely so much more work to do.”

A new direction

Weeks would go on to play two more years of basketball before opting out of her last year of eligibility.

She fell in love with sports medicine and got her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology but decided to continue for a degree in physical therapy. She enrolled at California State University, Long Beach, to get her prerequisites for physical therapy school. She felt like it was one of the best decisions she ever made, because it opened her up to a new setting. Southern California has the second-highest urban Indian population outside of New York City.

She then entered the physical therapy school at the University of Southern California. She was fascinated by studying clinical psychology in minority groups and had a clinical internship on a reservation. She thought that it was one way to pay it forward and give back to her community. She graduated with her doctorate in physical therapy in 2006, and consistently does youth outreach events to teach about wellness, going to college, and studying health.

Weeks-O’Neal now lives in Las Vegas, teaching at a local college and serving as director of a physical therapist assistant program. Her oldest son is currently a college athlete as well, following in his mom’s and grandpa’s shoes.

She helps out with the State Nevada Native Caucus. She is also a co-founder of the Indigenous Physical Therapy Network, which involves therapists all over the country who are Indigenous or work in Indigenous communities.

And she hasn’t forgotten the impact that game long ago had on her life. In March, when the Nevada Legislature held a hearing on the AB88 bill, she called in to give her testimony.

She shared a small portion of her experience with the incident that happened at the southern college and talked about the importance of how the termination of racially based Indigenous mascots would vastly improve the quality of life for Native people.

“That’s a positive move towards progress, towards improving representation, positive representation, amongst the Native youth and Native community.” Weeks-O’Neal told Indian Country Today.

 “That’s a wonderful thing," she said. "I feel like representation matters. What these kids see, what I saw growing up, often brought such a negative stereotype about you, and it also permits those who see those stereotypes, who are not Native, to treat you a certain way. Because you’re seen as lesser than, because of the stereotype.”

Nevada Assemblyman Howard Watts III, a Democrat whose District 15 includes portions of Las Vegas and Clark County, proposed AB88 to the legislature. Watts was inspired to push the bill forward after spending time with several tribes.

“This is a conversation that is happening more and more across the country,” Watts said. “I felt like the time was right to bring forward the bill and make it clear, this is the policy for the state of Nevada and the direction we want to go. We are home to 27 thoroughly recognized Indian tribes. They have seen the use of these both right here in Nevada, and across the country, as extremely hurtful. I think it’s a great opportunity for dialogue and for healing so that we can move forward as a community.”

Assemblywoman Brittney Miller, a Democrat whose District 5 also includes portions of Las Vegas and Clark County, was among those who supported the measure.

“I think it’s important because we often don’t consider the feelings of others,” Miller said. “And so many things have been normalized, there are so many things in our culture that have racist roots that a lot of people aren’t even aware of. But we have to remember, racism is not a victimless crime. There are people who are impacted and affected by it and hurt by it."

She continued, "So, in this case, with this bill where we are speaking upon logos, mascots, or names that are racially insensitive, imagine being that person who has to walk into that building that day. Imagine being that person that has to drive past that every day. For them, it’s very real and very hurtful. We just often forget that these things do matter and that they are important…"

The bill passed the legislature and was signed into law recently by the governor. Weeks-O’Neal said the legislation is important for Indigenous youth and how they can live in the new normal.

“It shows the youth that we care,” Weeks-O’Neal said. “That the community, the state of Nevada, the legislature, the people that are in power, are listening, recognizing, and acknowledging that we’ve known for decades that these Native mascots are bad for your self-esteem. It’ll tell the youth that we acknowledge that there are some moral obligations to improve your sense of well-being.

“Therefore, we are acting, we are taking action, they’re not just words, but action,” she said, “Talk is cheap. We are putting actions behind those words.”

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